After college, I took a job as a consultant with a small firm that worked solely with the Federal government on projects for USDOT/RITA. I had a small studio in the Back Bay neighborhood of Boston and commuted to work every morning to Cambridge on the subway, leaving my apartment around 7:45 and arriving at work around 8:30. The morning commute was never awful; cars came every few minutes so on those rare occasions that the Green Line was packed you could simply wait for the next train. The evening commute was another story. Park Street, which serves as a major intersection for Boston and Cambridge bound transit lines, was a swarthy sardine can in the summer and a slushy mix of faux fur, nylon, and L.L Bean boots. Students, professionals, and the more than occasional drunk suburbanite tried to pack into trains but, unlike almost every other city I’ve ridden a subway line save for Paris, didn’t pack, well, efficiently enough to get everyone in one car. So we all waited. And, most of the time, waited some more.
The evening commute, no matter where you are, is uniquely tortuous. Sure, the morning commute is tiring and, if you really hate your job, festering with anxiety. But when you leave work, whether it’s at 4 or 5 or 6, and you start making the trek home you are sacrificing valuable clusters of free time to the altar of boredom. Sure you can read on your iPad or Kindle, you can text your friends who are probably doing the exact same thing as you are, but those hours spent on the train or subway or bus or hatchback are empty. And when you spend the better parts of the day (i.e. the part of the day when the sun is out) sitting inside an office or in a cubicle (like I did) there is nothing worse than openly squandered hours.
Perfect example: my roommate. He takes the Long Island Railroad home to Brooklyn every evening, the ride from his job in Cedarhurst to Atlantic Terminal taking about an hour. Now, he’s actually found a decent outlet for his time spent on the stained fabric seats of the LIRR: DJ-sets and mixtapes, but for those days that you can’t be bothered to match BPMs on a Journey and J Dilla track you might want something a little more relaxing, like have a drink with some like minded individuals; a bar car with some personality.
The best proposition I’ve heard is this: have the last car on given evening trains dedicated to people who share a similar sporting interest (let’s say the Knicks), demarcate the car so that no unwitting families wander into the fray, and let stressed out office drones relax and cheer or groan for an hour of the day. Alcohol is nothing new to commuters coming in and out of New York City five days a week. (Two years ago the Times ran a piece about the beverage preferences of Metro-North and LIRR riders finding that the well-heeled Metro North riders heading to Connecticut and northern New York suburbs prefer wine almost twice as much as Long Islanders, and that LIRR riders really knock back the hard liquor and Bud Lights.) This isn’t turning LIRR or Metro-North or any of the other commuter services into a rolling sports bar, but loosening infrastructure’s tie somewhat on very select services—this isn’t exactly a kegger on the subway.
Hitting the sauce on the train is something that commuters just do, but it seems like we’re wasting a beautiful opportunity to not only increase revenues for transportation systems that are simply treading water and make your commute that much more enjoyable. But instead of anonymously drinking with nothing to watch but the slightly overweight guy from accounting try and schmooze with Jenna from sales, why can’t we watch (and don’t worry if you don’t get these references) Melo knock down a midrange jumper or JR Smith take an ill advised three? Have a beer, watch the game, just make sure you can still get off at the right stop.
What do we all think? Would this encourage illicit behavior on commuter trains? Can the MTA afford to loosen up a little bit? Would you watch a Knicks/Yankees/Mets/Rangers game with relative strangers on a moving vehicle? Would Boston try this and end with up a few too many drunks?
The technologies they’re putting into our cars nowadays seems hell bent on taking us out of the equation as quickly as possible. Lexuses (Lexi?) and Fords can parallel park by themselves. Volvos can tell you when some one is in your blind spot and you can now tell your Kia what music to play like its KITT’s more artistic cousin. All these advances can be filed under the term “Driver Facing Technology” (DFT) because they are geared towards making you a better driver by eliminating or simplifying habits that involve a lot of spatial negotiations or acute awareness, and with the ubiquity of distracting technology hitting critical mass maybe making us less a part of the equation is a good thing.
That crop of research and development is all well and good but remains solipsistic, an important qualification when you consider most of our decisions are based on other drivers’ decisions. Driving, whether it’s in the city or the highway, is best imagined as a complicated system of interdependent actors, so when you add a technology that aids an individual driver you are not necessarily creating a more efficient system. To do that you need a technology that allows for feedback within the structure, a symphonic advance instead of a solo.
Currently, the major movements in that direction have come from the Federal government and from private industry. USDOT/RITA’s Connected Vehicles program is attempting to bring infrastructure and vehicles into closer harmony by developing technologies and applications that facilitate efficient congestion management through radio-frequency identification (RFID), easing the anxieties of privacy advocates and allowing for constant communication between cars and streets. Volvo has developed “vehicle platooning” where cars wirelessly follow lead drivers at constant speeds allowing drivers the option to take their mind off driving when they’re traveling long distances. There is an outlier though: the DriveSmart program currently under development by NYCDOT.
DriveSmart has a lot in common with the Connected Vehicles program; both are geared towards congestion management, so-called “eco-driving”, and information dissemination. However, where Connected Vehicles is going through a decade-long research and development program necessary for a national project, DriveSmart is allowed more flexibility in both policy and incubation because of its size relative to the Federal government.
There’s no doubt that New York is in dire need of advanced driver-side technology. If you’ve ever tried to navigate SoHo when commuters are heading back through the Holland Tunnel, or forgot that it was the Manhattan and not the Williamsburg Bridge that was under construction on a Saturday night, or wondered if the subway or that cute pedicab was a better option than a taxi, then you understand New York’s transportation problem has more than a few leaks to plug. But imagine for a second that you need to go downtown after a Saturday dinner at Taqueria y Fonda in Morningside Heights. You have your car, but it’s Saturday night it’s probably going to take you a while no matter what route you take—but are you sure? What separates DriveSmart from a simple GPS module is that it would supply you with not only real time traffic and route suggestions, but also predictive time and financial costs between modes and, if you’re the environmental type, the “green option” of travel.
It’s not that DriveSmart is going to solve every congestion problem in New York, nothing outside of a universal congestion charge or a manic pedestrian rights movement will ease the choking traffic in the City. But DriveSmart does begin to introduce drivers to the systemic nature of driving in a city, that your decisions affect other decisions the amalgam of which drives the extremely complex management technique present at NYCDOT. NYCDOT is also in the middle of a data -driven renaissance, spearheaded by the transportation commissioner Janette Sadik-Khan; the city is beginning to discuss transportation systems in numbers instead of emotion. DriveSmart is the natural extension of that idea, the benefits of which will be staring you in the face as you speed around town.
When former MTA and TfL Chairman Jay Walder spoke to a class I was sitting in on at the Kennedy School of Government he said that when you have a revenue shortfall (as nearly every mass transit system in America does) you can do three things: cut routes, raise fares, or increase administrative efficiency. That trio of choices each have their associated criticisms—the first two affect poor and disabled people disproportionately, the last means severe rounds of layoffs—but they are the only internal options a transit authority has when they’re faced with red which means that the fiduciary creativity needs to be an outside effort undertaken by either larger government valves (such as the Governor or Mayor’s office, or even the Dept. of Transportation) or monomaniacally devoted individuals. It seems as though the New York Times has brought attention to one of the latter.
Sam Schwartz is a pretty well-known name in planning and progressive transportation policy circles: he founded one of the most successful transportation engineering firms in New York City and designed the traffic plans for Atlantic Yards and the Ikea in Red Hook, among others. Bill Keller, the former executive editor the Times, has brought his name to the general public. In an Op-Ed published on March 4th Keller laments the “demise” of New York’s mass transit system:
IF you live in New York, commute to New York, or occasionally visit what Russell Shorto called the island at the center of the world, you have experienced the indignity of our city’s transportation hell. You have endured the screeching, flood-prone subways. You have surrendered exorbitant carfare to escape our eyesore airports, then lurched along congested highways, over creaking bridges and into our truck-clotted city streets. You have dodged the camping homeless at the Port Authority bus terminal, or wandered lost in the miasmal misery of Pennsylvania Station. New York City welcomes you with open arms — like the zombies in “The Walking Dead.”
Nevermind the inane condescension in Keller’s opening salvo (it’s obvious that Keller is not a transportation expert nor one for subtlety, every sentence is steeped in mid-20th century thinking and he doesn’t even address the lack of access as the prime issue facing the 5 million New Yorkers who don’t live in Manhattan) if you can, the point is that there are infrastructure problems in New York that go beyond the cost of a monthly subway pass and the volume of cars on the streets. Schwartz presents an idea that goes beyond the typical congestion pricing concept that has failed to pass in New York thanks to well-heeled suburbanites and their state representation. He wants the CBD (below 60th Street in Schwartz’s plan) to be a variable price charge zone similar to London and Stockholm, but also supports a complete restructuring of the bridge tolls, eliminating levies on the Verrazano and Triborough bridges and reinstating all other tolls on the East River (Personal Aside: I live in Brooklyn often on that late night or weekend in Manhattan it is damn near impossible to get home without a cab [the Q and B are often closed] so this would add a lot to a fare, but we’ll discuss that below).
Variable congestion pricing (also known as market based congestion pricing) isn’t a novel concept—at this point it’s the pet theory of the traffic engineering community (another, more extreme plan by the transportation theorist Charles Kumanoff, calls for extremely high charges on commuters resulting in free mass transit for all; Kumanoff’s plan is admirable but I’m afraid it wouldn’t get past the Albany city limits). But Schwartz presents the case from multiple angles to preempt his critics, something that progressive planners have neglected in the past. Poor people win because the MTA will get a $1.2 billion injection, rich people win because they can travel downtown faster (Schwartz shows that drivers have a higher median income than transit users, a fact that most people state but usually don’t prove), and New York wins because the air will be cleaner and everyone can get around easier. There are, of course, still losers (like us broke Brooklynites!) in this system such as middle-class commuters who drive for myriad reasons; an additional charge for them will have a higher marginal impact than for tony Greenwichers and Scarsdalians. Still, there is no uniformly effective plan for New York infrastructure and this one marks most of the correct boxes politically and financially, something we haven’t seen for a long time.
I encourage readers to check out Sam Schwartz’s excellent Powerpoint PDF presentation here.
For a long time, artists sort of found themselves. If you painted or collaged or mixed-media’d then you found a grungy apartment with ample, raw space that you could bend to your creative will; and, because the rent was invariably cheap, you could sustain a lifestyle selling the occasional magnum opus for rent money. With the real estate frenzy in the late 90′s, desirable (see: cheap and big) artists spaces saw rents rise geometrically and all but the Gagosian-repped (and rent controlled) survived the times. But artist communities sort organically, and eventually barrios like Red Hook, Williamsburg, and the Lower East Side saw a new generation of creatives paying whatever they could for whatever they could find.
Dustin Yellin might be trying to change all that. Highlighted in today’s New York Times, Yellin is a young sculptural artist with deep enough pockets to make a down payment on a 24,000-square-foot warehouse in the Red Hook section of Brooklyn that he wants to turn into, as told to the Times, “a kind of utopian art center.” This isn’t your hipster friend’s art collective. Mr. Yellin’s vision is more event space than artistic cooperative, and he dreams of housing not only promising aesthetes in a fellowship program but conducting symposiums and, of course, a sculpture garden.
Dustin Yellin’s desire to shape a corner of Red Hook into a an artistic frontier represents an interesting aberration in urban planning based on the sorcery of capitalism rather than administration (this type of shift—transformation-via-acquisition— isn’t all that different from the way Eli Broad transformed the Los Angeles museum scene or Tony Goldman reinvigorated SoHo, except that while they work in the 10-figure world, Mr. Yellin works in the seven. Three digits and a world apart.) Yellin considers the landscape in a place like Red Hook—bucolic, sparse, apparently raw—more of a canvas than simple quarters and, for those of us who like to see the ample intersection of art and urbanism more often, it’s a welcome piece.
Joe Lhota, former Giuliani budget director and Dolan/Cablevision VP, begins his tenure at the most complex transportation system in the country today. Here’s an excerpt from the MTA press release (via NY Observer and NYC Transit Forum):
The MTA is the engine that drives our economy and makes our way of life possible here in New York, and we have a responsibility to operate our service as efficiently and effectively as possible. The MTA is facing a number of difficult fiscal and operating challenges, including funding our vital capital program and continuing to improve service in tough economic times. My focus in the next couple of months is understanding this organization from top-to-bottom, and listening to our employees, customers, and community leaders as we work together to shape an agenda and improve this vital service for all New Yorkers.”
Well, we’re starting off well since Chairman Lhota acknowledges the paramount economic and social importance of a solvent and operable transit system and goes straight into admitting that the fiscal situation the MTA faces in the near and longterm may be solved with painful solutions. The biggest challenge to Mr. Lhota’s career at the MTA may be his inescapable battles with upstate lawmakers and constituents who see their rural tax dollars being funneled to that most urban of social services (the irony of course being that the majority of the tax revenue generated in the state of New York comes from the City and, subsequently, the bulk of the funding for projects initiated in Albany and the rest of Upstate). He also has to address the issues surrounding operations and, as his predecessor Jay Walder understood clearly, part of balancing the budget is cutting service and raising fares, an unpopular, unfair, but ultimately the only politically palatable move the MTA can make (of course raising tolls on bridges and installing a congestion charge could eliminate the need for either of those actions… but I digress).
Chairman Lhota’s first day on the job make be a lot of publicity and sound bites but I think that, combined with an already stalwart (and progressive) team installed at the DOT and Planning Department, Lhota may just be able to make good on his pragmatic promises. It may be naive to trust the words of what is an essentially political position, but faith has to start somewhere.
For those of you that know me personally, my girlfriend works in the art world and serves as an idea mill for a company that deals in pricey contemporary art pieces. She brought the idea of writing on where art and the city interact and I thought it had a lot of legs to it so I’m going to try my best to reconcile the least pretentious parts of both spheres and I’m really hoping that this comes out of the oven in some sort of cogent shape. Good luck to my readers—this could be ugly.
The photographer Ricky Powell once snapped a picture of Andy Warhol and Jean-Michel Basquiat standing on Mercer Street in SoHo in 1985. Basquiat, 24 and lithe, stands separate from the veteran tastemaker and the much older and aloof Warhol looks slightly electrocuted and sleepy. The photo’s quirkiness is probably a product of time, we tend to see (and want to see, which might be the same thing) celebrity auteurs as inhabiting the exact same sphere and expect that sphere to be based on intimate relationships that are easily decipherable: friendship, hatred, envy, etc. Powell’s photo doesn’t really jive with that notion because Warhol and Basquiat aren’t scowling or smiling at or even standing close to one another, they’re just sort of there on the street “with” each other, in the loosest sense of the word. Both men were close to death, three years and heroin for Basquiat, two years and arrhythmia for Warhol, but their art was still thriving in the thick ferment of 1980’s New York. The pairs’ relationship to New York individually and in tandem ties a knot between urbanism (chaos, tranquility, etc.) and the art that emerges from the fray.
For those of us who don’t know the secret handshake, art can seem like a directionless endeavor with values and dollar figures attached arbitrarily to pieces pulled out the twisted nether that is the “art scene.” Two current shows, Prospect New Orleans (10/22/11 through 01/29/12) and Performa in New York City (11/01/11 through 11/21/11) are attempting to put art into perspective and provide a sounding board for people like us, who tend to understand the city better than the abstract narratives told through acrylic and PVC and archival inkjet prints.
Studies in urbanism aren’t bereft of aesthetics especially when you look at events like the Tactical Urbanism Salon that took place in Long Island City in early October. Presentations by groups like Vertical Theory and BroLab are artistic forays into urban planning but aren’t really awash in artistic pursuits, which is why we have terms like “urban design” which probably confuses a lot more people than it enlightens. Where the 1:1 ratio of urban design to art breaks down rather quickly is when the question of use comes up. You can use (hopefully) whatever urban designers come up with because that’s the whole purpose of their endeavors; they want to make civic things (garages, libraries, neighborhoods, etc.) beautiful while retaining the utilitarian innards, not a new mission by any amount of the imagination but the meshing of architecture and planning is starting to turn itself over more fully to the ideas espoused by urban theorists like Jane Jacobs and Richard Florida. So when we flip the balance and the weights of art and pragmatic design wobble into new proportions civic missions become something completely separate and novel and demanding.
New Orleans and New York are cities that are on completely separate paths right now. NOLA is still reeling from the hammering it received in 2006 from Hurricane Katrina and attempts to shake off its disaster zone stigma have been slow. Populations that saw the most damage from the hurricane began a hegira that still skews the city’s demographic projection in the census conducted four years later. New York continues to thrive even in the face of recession and disaster and the influx of those seeking opportunity is stronger than ever. They are on either side of life—revitalization and excess.
Prospect New Orleans is the more interesting of the two if not only because it is expressly dedicated to “the principle that the art of our time can play a significant role in the revitalization of an important U.S. city.” A magnanimous art exhibition in a place like New Orleans cannot be separated from its watery past and that is exactly what makes a project like Prospect feel so unpretentious and unassuming. The art doesn’t feel as though it’s solipsistic, there are intimate interactions with city spaces and city history that make the projects more an outcropping of civil struggle and rebirth than a practice in experimentation and progress. It is art with purpose. Prospect not only feels like a non-profit exhibition, it files its taxes as one as well.
Where the 1:1 ratio of urban design to art breaks down rather quickly is when the question of use comes up. You can use (hopefully) whatever urban designers come up with because that’s the whole purpose of their endeavors; they want to make civic things (garages, libraries, neighborhoods, etc.) beautiful while retaining the utilitarian innards…”
Prospect also just seems fun. The opening festivities included a composition by the new media artist R. Luke DuBois in which high school marching bands separated into five groups converge on NOLAs’ Washington Square, the timing organized so that the bands’ climaxes mesh perfectly, like musical floodwaters merging in downtown New Orleans. William Pope.L asked for photographs of New Orleanians in reaction to the questions “When you dream of New Orleans, what do you dream of? When you wake up in the morning, what do you see?” which he collected into a video project and installed onto a moving truck, providing a “collective memory bank” of the city of New Orleans and its people.
Peforma is the more serious of the two biennials, and that isn’t to say that Prospect is particularly unserious or that Performa is overly self-aware, but the New York exhibition does represent a collection of works that forces a separation from civil reconstruction into current movements within a vast urban zone. Performa allows itself to be expansive and the exhibitions address New York narrowly (Nicoline Van Harskamp’s Any Other Business – A Scripted Conference is expressly political but the obvious parallels to a financial board meeting are obvious) and the wider cultural fray that is drawn to the show (L’Encyclopédie de la Parole’s Chorale adopts political speeches and poetry and answering machine messages and turns them into a chorus of musical minutiae, sort of a humdrum opera).
A magnanimous art exhibition in a place like New Orleans cannot be separated from its watery past and that is exactly what makes a project like Prospect feel so unpretentious and unassuming.”
Comparisons automatically become qualitative seesaws and readers should be aware that the schism between Prospect and Performa is not so much a difference of substance than it is a difference of scope. They both serve disparate purposes as well: Prospect is dedicated towards healing New Orleans through exhibitions based on the experience and recently disastrous history of a specific city with bayou-born artists while Performa is a broad-based artistic symposium based on a more general interpretation of artistic expression within New York’s city limits. They’re relatives but more cousins than sisters. It is supremely important, then, that Prospect and Performa are inextricably bound to the geography of their respective cities.
Prospect is a New Orleans Biennale, Performa is a Biennale in New York.”
Prospect uses New Orleans differently than Performa uses New York or as a friend in the art world summarizes, “Prospect is a New Orleans Biennale, Performa is a Biennale in New York.” Truth is, Performa takes its cues from the City but at the end of the day New York becomes a stage for Performa to be played out on while Prospect is part and parcel to its urban setting with exhibitions woven into the map of New Orleans and exhibitions are matched to specific locales. Prospect does not differentiate between the city and the art, there aren’t any lines to blur or membranes to cross or cognitive dissonances to overcome, Prospect is just New Orleans with more art floating around. Alternatively, Performa is art for those in tune with the arts. . You have to find Performa within dozens of different venues and, while the exhibitions are immensely rewarding, there is not that gut-feeling of augmented reality, it’s just another great art show in New York.
(I feel badly not mentioning another interesting urban/art show in New York City: Bring to Light. This exhibition is the diminutive, nocturnal counterpart to Performa, and has elements common to both shows discussed in detail above. The show is also a synchronized world event with other cities creating their own site-specific “nuit blanche” events and the message eventually pushes visitors’ towards urbanism’s current overwhelming meme of the Global City. This squishy concept is better explained within a vacuum, like so much else in urban design, but let’s just say that many city thinkers consider the future of American metropolises to be integrally linked to that of internationally ones. Bring to Light is worth taking a look at, if only to see what a one-day, nighttime art exhibition can achieve.)
Peforma New York and Prospect New Orleans are not, by definition, experiments in urbanism, but they do provide a sort of artistic reaction to the formative events in two cities’ histories, a sort of urbanism retrospective. Melting down artistic pursuits to their most malleable and pouring them into the map molds of New York and New Orleans has yielded some of the most impressive site-specific exhibitions in recent years. It looks like urbanism might have found a willing partner at last.
Excuse the long pause between pieces over the course of the last month, between moving down to Brooklyn from Boston, home of five years and my main urban reference point for the last six months, and putting together several long form (see: extremely esoteric and boring) pieces there hasn’t been much time for short, interesting pieces. There will hopefully be two more 2000-3000 word articles forthcoming but in the mean time here is a short reaction to an editorial in the ultra-hip, and apparently ultra-affluent-influencing, weekly New York Observer.
When you catch someone reading the New York Observer you have three reactions: the person is pretty well heeled (average net worth of a subscribed reader: $1.7 million, according to Wikipedia), potentially in tune with the current fashion and cultural memes, and reasonably educated at least academically (97% have a college degree, ibid; the other 3% think college is passé, editorial). That isn’t meant as a slight against the newspaper because that’s exactly who they want reading their newspaper because that’s who their advertisers want reading their adspace. Transportation isn’t really interesting to that demographic, at least not the bottom floor of transportation where most of this blog finds its material, so it was interesting to read through a 600-word editorial from the board at the Observer and see what they had to say about a Port Authority generated bungling.
the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, an entity that controls a lot more key infrastructure points than most people want to think about”
Background: On September 17th, 2011 the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, an entity that controls a lot more key infrastructure points than most people want to think about, raised tolls on the George Washington, Goethals, and Bayonne Bridges, the Holland and Lincoln Tunnels, and the Outerbridge Crossing (which I assume is neither a bridge or a tunnel, but I’ve never been on it) from $8 to $12 in and from $8 to $9.50 for E-ZPass users (aside: I will never understand why people refuse to get E-ZPass transponders when they make driving cheaper, reduce overall traffic, and make it less likely that you’ll get embarrassed by holding up the toll line. Balking at the minimum balance requirements is an understandable apprehension, but for that odd population that thinks it’s a government-tracking device: Are you reading this blog right now? Do you use a method besides cash to pay for anything, ever? Do you have a phone in your pocket? Where you are is a matter of Public [with a capital “p” which means it’s not really “public” with a little “p”] record now. Privacy has actually boomeranged to its conservative genesis, i.e. all that is private is what you do in your home.) which on its face are monumental increases and a significant step towards the eventual toll target of $15 in 2015. The toll jumps are going to go towards filling budget holes for the World Trade Center site (the PANYNJ owns the property, Silverstein Properties owns the 99-year, $3.2 billion lease) that has already seen significant budget overruns and development squabbles and could have faced a bond rating slash if the tolls weren’t hiked.
Tolls are an unfortunate reality of infrastructure development and in my previous life as a consultant I learned more about the inconvenient realities surrounding payment-based driving than I would like to talk about publicly. I really, really don’t want to go into what tolls actually do because many of you would run from the room or hurt yourselves passing out on your keyboard—but for reasons not explored here there is not a 1:1 ratio of toll revenues to increased purchasing power for development authorities, which is where we find the venerable NY Observer at fault:
After raising fares on its tunnels and bridges, the Port Authority now says that it simply can’t afford to build a bus garage near its bus terminal on Eighth Avenue. Never mind that the garage would provide buses with a place to park while awaiting the next run—a move that would save fuel and improve on-time performance. The agency simply can’t afford the garage.
There isn’t anything strange about this sort of emotive reaction to what is ostensibly a slight to hardworking commuters from New Jersey and to the equally industrious bus drivers who have to “drop off their passengers and then return, empty, to park in New Jersey. Or… simply find a place to wait on the streets near the terminal.” Movement and progress for transportation policy aren’t the same thing, especially when it comes to capital construction (Another highway lane and an additional subway line are the same thing, right?) and all told it’s probably best that the construction of an $800 million facility (the Observer challenges the contract accounting without much explication) that would serve a community of commuters that is dwarfed considerably by the number of rail riders. The Observer is apparently criticizing the PANYNJ for not building another parking lot in the middle of Manhattan, an oddity of sorts because parking lots, no matter how compact or subterranean or modular, are peculiar aberrations of urban space. Parking structures are these odd middlemen in the city, they are the places you go before you get where you’re going and don’t serve a purpose outside of facilitating purposes. Their necessity is predicated solely on people driving though, and so much of progressive transportation policy is based solely on reducing the amount of cars on the road. And yes, a bus depot is not the same thing as a commercially developed parking lot but the criticisms of the PANYNJ shouldn’t be on not building an $800 million bus facility but that it’s taking so long to build the $3.8 billion transportation hub in Lower Manhattan.
we all want policy to move forward but sometimes we have to take what we can get and keep moving the goal ahead.”
A lot of this blog is dedicated towards liberal pragmatism regarding infrastructure and urban development, i.e. we all want policy to move forward but sometimes we have to take what we can get and keep moving the goal ahead. Budgetary restrictions are more real than I like to think about but the construction of an $800 million bus depot is a plain faced mistake when there are pressing needs in the outer boroughs, northern New Jersey, and the outer corners of Manhattan. It’s almost as ridiculous as building billion dollar stadiums with taxpa…er, never mind.
For the purposes of this essay, Cosby and Huxtable will be exchangeable terms on an almost 1:1 basis. There are cases when I am talking about the actual Bill Cosby where this will be an obviously moot point as Cliff Huxtable only exists in the American imagination and Bill Cosby is a real dude.
My older brother likes to tease me about the genesis of my first name, Theodore. The standard stories from my mother is, of course, that I was named after that leonine president Theodore Roosevelt and that she hoped I would engage the more beneficent aspects of his mantle; more saving bears, less starting wars. I was always pretty satisfied with this explanation and even picked up the first two books of Edmund Wilson’s exhaustive biography trilogy—though as Robert Caro proves over and over again, there’s only so much we can know about one person. Theodore Roosevelt was a decent man to be named after and, considering his time and occupation, less flawed than most. My brother, however, has another story.
I was born during the first wave of counterculture TV programming so I wasn’t prepared to absorb anything beyond the physical comedy of my family’s favorite sitcoms and eventually enjoyed the more whitewashed brands like Saved by the Bell and Friends. But apparently people (i.e. Americans) were tired of the saccharine family time presented by the Brady Bunch and the Jeffersons and Happy Days because apparently even George Jefferson calling Tom Willis honky is almost sweetly offensive when you look back on it. When shows like Seinfeld (a group of promiscuous and, potentially more important, Jewish singles) and Roseanne/Married with Children (a more crass take on lower-middle class white America) came on the air it signaled a serious departure from the previous 25 years of programming with the notable exception of I Love Lucy which is still one of the most daring shows to ever find a slot on network television. Within the entire fracas there was the Cosby Show, a predictable, orthodox program that didn’t challenge family values or espouse self-consciously brazen looks at American life in an oddity of a decade. Of course they were also a black family.
“Normal” black families on television aren’t as common as you might think. George and Weezy Jefferson were business-owners in a still-blue collar way (the show’s premise needed them to be ostensibly lower-class [but wittier and more intelligent] than their neighbors) and their success gave them a leg up the ladder, moving into a presumably white neighborhood and an explicitly white building; the jokes centered on how hilarious it must have been for a black man to live in a white neighborhood in the 1970s.
And Sanford and Son was more Tyler Perry than Spike Lee in terms of cultural significance.”
And Sanford and Son was more Tyler Perry than Spike Lee in terms of cultural significance. Speaking of Perry, the current bounty of black led TV shows is an ironic continuation of ground broken from 1960-1990. Most of Mr. Perry’s programming can be fairly described as working class television for black people and have contrasting similarities to both shows from the relatively innocent era of TV (All in the Family, Full House, etc.) and the more disillusioned shows we have now (How I Met Your Mother, Yes, Dear, etc.)—the blending doesn’t really make for excellent television and most of Perry’s is summarily dismissed as an especially pure form of commercialization and an especially cynical incarnation of that since the shows take on that same barbiturate glaze familiar to everyone who spent the last 50 years watching network programming schedules (if you want to read a more thorough and hilarious takedown of Mr. Perry’s C.V. read everything Spike Lee has said about his [Perry’s] work).
The Cosby Show —and eventually Will Smith’s launching pad the Fresh Prince of Bel Air, and even more eventually Family Matters, which presumably served as the genesis point for most of the television geared towards African Americans we have today—had resonant normalcy because the Huxtables were a black family that lacked any residue of caricature. Sure, there were token affectations of urban black culture—Cliff and Clair Huxtable both went to a (fictional) black college (Hillman) and Cliff is a huge jazz fan who came of age in Philadelphia—but the molding of a character on television requires some cultural broad strokes and the defining facets of this family aren’t based in the trivia but that Cliff is a doctor and Clair is a lawyer, the two defining upper middle class professions and new territory for a black family on television.
(A slight urbanism aside: The exterior shots of the Huxtable’s residence in Brooklyn Heights were actually of a brownstone in Greenwich Village, a neighborhood with demographics considerably more lily-like in the 1990’s than the Huxtable’s neighborhood. The shots in the Village produced enough small-screen verisimilitude to make an unsubtle display of objective wealth— which for a black family in the last part of the 20th century isn’t insubstantial.)
It’s not that the Huxtables were wealthy but that they were black bourgeois, a class that most of the people with color TVs (i.e. white people) hadn’t ever seen, even in their imagination. If you’ll excuse the shortcut of stereotypes, a wealthy black person to a wealthy white person lived in a predominantly black neighborhood and was maybe a business owner or entertainer. Black people weren’t doctors or lawyers or accountants or financiers; they were Eddie Murphy and George Jefferson.
Television, and whether this is fortunate or not I’m not sure, is the sieve that most of pop culture is forced through. Sitcoms (and dramas and whatever shows like Lost and Terra Nova can be categorized as) are so derivative because they have to be concentrated residue of cultural ambience. Nuance isn’t telegenic and the shows that attempt to be interesting are hard (i.e. The Wire). Fortunately, some shows (and typically these shows end up being the most critically, not necessarily commercially, successful) will break new ground and avoid becoming sociocultural backwash. The Cosby Show remains one of those few groundbreaking (and groundbreaking is a tough word to use here: did it introduce any novel topics? No. Did it create a new medium? No. But the entire Huxtable family went to college and we hadn’t seen that from a fake black family before) and quintessentially urban shows—though it may actually be more important that it was successful (i.e. funny), not earth-shattering.
The Cost Cosby isn’t post-racial and there’s been a lot of academic conjecture regarding the effect it might have had on the general TV watching public in the 80s and 90s. Cosby himself, wielding creative control of his own show, harbors complex and plain opinions on the particular plights of the black family in urban America buttressed by a doctorate in education from the University of Massachusetts. Cosby is 74, old enough to remember what the dusty nexus of explicit and implicit racism looks like. Many younger critics (and entertainers, who differ wildly with Cosby on semantic significance and epitomized by Chris Rock’s interview on Inside the Actor’s Studio where Rock’s explanation of the beautification of racial epithets by the black community would send Cosby into a generational-gap fueled fit) look at the Cosby Show as a fresh whitewashing of black culture and deals only with urban problems in frothy platitudes, skirting the complicated blights of drugs, violence, and general inequality. Mr. Cosby, in interviews, books, and jokes, places those poisons squarely in the veins of filial destruction in black communities and, while discussing to the institutional inequities in the American legal system, he finds family as the deciding factor in generational and urban success.
Mr. Cosby, in interviews, books, and jokes, places those poisons squarely in the veins of filial destruction in black communities and, while discussing to the institutional inequities in the American legal system, he finds family as the deciding factor in generational and urban success.”
Sentimentalism isn’t necessarily dangerous but it does fog up the screen slightly, so it’s important to be grounded when we’re talking about television. The Cosby Show was more I Love Lucy than Good Times but it’s a muted cultural phenomenon. The Huxtables weren’t real people so their impact was rhetorical, i.e. they tried to convince you to look at the world a certain way, typically completely opposed to the way that the general TV audience saw the realities of urban American life. Television (and books and music and other media) is funny though, since you have the option of turning off the persuasive arguments as soon as you don’t agree with them and even though as a society we’ve solved the issue of a rhetorical rubric for interactions that aren’t person to person (Nielsen ratings, New York Times’ Bestseller lists, etc.) it’s still awfully difficult to alter institutionalized grievances, especially when it concerns either of the tandem All-American issues of race and gender.
Television (and books and music and other media) is funny though, since you have the option of turning off the persuasive arguments as soon as you don’t agree with them and even though as a society we’ve solved the issue of a rhetorical rubric for interactions that aren’t person to person (Nielsen ratings, New York Times’ Bestseller lists, etc.) it’s still awfully difficult to alter institutionalized grievances, especially when it concerns either of the tandem All-American issues of race and gender.”
So what, exactly, do a lot of racial theorists think is wrong with the Cosby Show? The typical answer is that it makes “being white” into an ideal for blacks who may harbor some conscious and unconscious self-hatred of something that is the biological equivalent of the difference between propane and methane, a discrepancy that is microscopic in its material makeup but volatile in its cultural impacts. Acting white and being white and the loaded-but-less-contemporarily-common term “passing” have become paradoxical insults especially for young black males where studying and subdued mannerisms (NB: young white males aren’t exactly the picture of wholesome academia either, so the odd stereotype presents itself in strange places on the other side of the equation as well) are derided as cultural loathing and even a comparative statement: “I (being white) am better than you (being black).”
Cosby took on this oddity of American race dynamics on Meet the Press in 2007 when Tim Russert discussed the implications the awe-inspiring statistics associated with the black community:
I hear things coming out of the mouths of babes, things that they believe—example, and one of the most old-fashioned things. Kid [are] studying, and so they say to the kid, “You’re acting white,” which is a put-down to make this kid stop studying. Well, let’s examine this. If you’re black and you say to me, because you see me studying, “You’re acting white,” what is it you’re saying about black people? You see, these are things that have to be discussed with, with—and nobody—people aren’t coming up enough to challenge these statements, to, to, to do character corrections on these things.
The key here is that Cosby understands cultural (and, crassly, racial) pride in a way that only septa-and-octogenarians can relate to. Pride does not speak power, though, and Cosby understands the thin line between loving oneself and loving oneself over another.
The counterpoints to this kind of argument were especially loud during the late 1980’s and early 1990’s when the crack epidemic was still in middle age and race riots in cities like Los Angeles made people plain scared of each other; black people were scared of the police (and that stigma is still in place throughout many urban areas) and white people were scared of black people (NB: I understand that I am neglecting any other ethnicities in this article, Hispanic urban-tele-cultural mores can be gleaned especially from I Love Lucy and, unfortunately, The George Lopez Show, among others. We have still not had an Asian-American based sitcom, oddly enough.) Mike Budd and Clay Steinman exposit most of the argument in their essay “White Racism and the Cosby Show ” in an academic essay collection called Jump Cut which judging by its subtitle is a Review of Contemporary Media. The essay is exhaustive but unfortunately historiographic and doesn’t delve into anything deeper than the Cosby Show ’s effect on white viewers who are, apparently, more comfortable with the Huxtables because they (the viewers) often forget that the Huxtables are black.
20 years later and it’s easy to see how much Budd and Steinman were influenced by the context of their times—if that’s the worst thing about a TV show then the producers of such venerable hits as Three and a Half Men and How I Met Your Mother should probably engage in a racial forum during an hour long special in order to make their topics more family friendly and relatable. Criticism of a moving target like television is flawed unless you hedge every opinion with an out (like I usually do) which tends to dilute your argument in the first place, but crystalline opinions on fluid topics like race and culture are better viewed through a longitudinal lens where you see the specific instance as part of an ever extending timeline rather than a perfect event affected only by the preceding moments and vacant of any future modifications or alterations.
There is a tremendous difficulty in wrapping a topic like this up and feeling secure that you’ve related it sufficiently to urbanity so that people don’t start thinking this is a pretentious pop culture blog. 12.6% of this country is black, which isn’t a very big number when you consider the fact that Latinos make up another 16% of the population and white people most of the remainder. But when you look at New York (26.6%) or Atlanta (54.0%) or Chicago (36.8%) the picture starts to complete itself a little bit; issues facing the black community are issues facing the urban community on the whole. Urbanism is, after all, a study of reaction and interaction and cooperation in places that are complicated and crowded and dangerous and exciting. If Bill Cosby could make some one feel more comfortable with their neighbors because they finally came to realize that differences were more a product of heuristics and ironically high-level brain function, why should that be a move in the wrong direction? This is not mass produced MLK doctrine, but it isn’t cumbaya either.
There’s been a lot of griping about the coverage the Occupy Wall Street protest is getting in widely read media outlets in the United States and abroad. Some consider it the reconstitution of the pacifistic protests of the 1960′s; coherent message was left to the Black Panthers and Weather Underground, the youth were there to simply stop a war and it didn’t matter if they had signs saying different things. The lack of media coverage, for them, is simply another chapter in the saga of man-against-money and a sign that the editorial boards at the Times, Post, Picayune, and Tribune are too deep in the pockets of financiers to see the boiling discontent in Southern Manhattan. Others, however, see reality.
It’s inarguable that income inequality and poverty are burgeoning problems in this country and much of the blame can be laid at the doors of misplaced priorities and a favorable regulatory schematic. Because protesting against abstractions is a difficult task without professional propagandists (no, the Tea Party groups are not made up of savant sloganeers) most turn to symbols and the canyon down on Wall Street is the most tangible embodiment of excess the protesters can think of (rather than, say, Westport or Stamford or, um, Towaco) so they gather, MacBooks in laps, and espouse whatever it is they espouse.
It’s easy to make light of people “doing” something from the comfort of a desk; bloggers skirt risk catholically, the internet provides universal anonymity. The Occupy Wall Street participants are active and dedicated and charmingly unorganized. They are there because they see the world, as many good minds do, in terms of fair and unfair, the latter coming around a lot more than the former lately.
It’s inarguable that income inequality and poverty are burgeoning problems in this country and much of the blame can be laid at the doors of misplaced priorities and a favorable regulatory schematic.
Unfortunately the protesters, who’s hearts are undoubtedly in the right place, are chasing the tail and not the head. Rising poverty and stagnant opportunities weren’t caused by financiers anymore than the hostage crisis was caused by President Carter, the cascading scenarios dictated the results rather than the individual actors. The mystifying belief that financial institutions stole cash out of our hands (TARP fund aside—do you want to imagine what would have happened without that? Didn’t think so.) is conjured heuristically—relative deprivation is a strong emotional argument.
Since this is a blog on urban problems let’s get to the main point: the current economic mess we find people—rather than institutions—in today is a symptom of significant underinvestment in urban infrastructure, especially in poor and predominantly non-white neighborhoods. Public transportation maps and playfully informative Census renderings make it unnervingly easy to look at correlations between transit access and incomes in a city like New York or Los Angeles. The consummately talented info-artists over at the Center for Urban Pedagogy made this (screenshots are the best I can do because embedding something this beautiful is beyond my coding skills. I really, really encourage you all to visit the site; it has statistics on every neighborhood in NYC and the income distributions are stunning, visually and informationally):
Statisticians would warn me against weighing one variable too heavily especially in something as mercurial and fluid as a city, but neighborhoods like Bed-Stuy and Astoria are frustratingly uncluttered. In the most extreme cases you can walk 15 blocks and never see a subway stop. For a neighborhood in New York to be this barren is indicative of disproportionate access to integral urban services like transit and the potential benefits that come along with it.
…the current economic mess we find people—rather than institutions—in today is a symptom of significant underinvestment in urban infrastructure, especially in poor and predominantly non-white neighborhoods.
There are systemic issues in policy and investment that are manifesting themselves in poorer people and deteriorating faith. Wall Street has, of course, made mistakes that fed failures in the mortgage market and retirement funds, but greed is an equal opportunity vice and the myriad anecdotes of overextended credit backed by promises of a quick profit find the hands of the protesters pointing back at themselves. The anger at bankers and equity gurus and hedge fund managers is about one thing: inequality. The thought that income gaps are best solved by making the top come down is burning a candle without a wick. The passion and cause can be directed towards a more meaningful vector; leveling the playing field through access to public goods is achievable and supremely important, asking billionaires to turn over their paycheck isn’t.
Did New York Overreact to Hurricane Irene? How Urban Planning, Demographics, and Transportation Dictate How a Mayor Deals with Disaster
A version of this blog post appears in Next American City. This is the author’s personal blog.
August is a typical lull in the amphetaminized 24-hour news cycle. People go on vacation, Congress adjourns to their vacation homes in Maine, and big media outlets squeeze stories out of stone and wear the tread out of international intrigue until the events lose traction. Things stateside were typically subdued in the waning days of summer—that is until Irene came around.
Hurricane Irene had a lot of monikers thrown at it, all of them with a similar tone: this storm was going to be once-in-a-generation bad. Cities were evacuated, surfers were arrested, and panic was widespread. The nation kept an especially focused eye on New York’s preparations in a city that has seen less than a dozen major storms since 1821. Hurricane Irene was billed as “different” in New York City and a cautionary tenor dominated conversations regarding what city officials needed to do with the more than 8 million residents.
As Irene lurched towards New York it was obvious that the Bloomberg administration was taking a better-safe-than-sorry approach to storm logistics. Surges and flooding were already wreaking havoc in hurricane-seasoned states down the Eastern seaboard and New York, suddenly surrounded by menacing waters, had to act.
Act it did, evacuating over 300,000 people in the low-lying areas of Brooklyn and Manhattan and shutting down public transportation for nearly 48 hours ahead of the impending squall. The partial evacuation left more than enough people in the city to fill up bars capitalizing on storm-themed drinks and parties, but the dangers, at least in the minds of city officials and armchair meteorologists, were tangible enough to warrant serious action.
Hurricane Irene came and went and while the damage in New York City will climb north of $1 billion (and potentially $20 billion nationally), the estimates made by statistical gurus like the Times Nate Silver can now be safely decried as paranoid (it should be noted that Mr. Silver’s dollar-damage estimates were based on hurricanes in general, not Irene specifically). The real damage as we now know is in states like New Jersey and Vermont where, for various reasons, water and wind decimate infrastructure on a scale unknown in New York. What we are left with is a simple question: did New York overreact to Hurricane Irene?
The Bloomberg Administration’s decision to evacuate 300,000 people from flood-prone zones was an extreme one and put the city’s internal emergency management skills to a stress test. Fortunately, the question of overreaction or not is particularly relevant; loss of life and property in New York could have been substantially worse with even a marginal increase in Irene’s momentum. The two main symptoms of Mayor Bloomberg’s emergency strategy—evacuations and infrastructure closures—weren’t actually that surprising or novel. Those moves served as a bulwark—or perhaps a hedge— against local and national condemnation for underestimating Mother Nature, something that Mayor Bloomberg knows well from last year’s disastrous blizzard—or as the always-understated Post calls it “Mike’s Katrina moment.”
Cynicism drove the conversation this week, as if the calculus of destruction has to be an equation rather than an inequality to satisfy all comers.”
The storm, while not as powerful as predicted the days prior to its landfall in New York, did bring more than 7 inches of rain, drowning infrastructure and bringing surges into parts of Battery Park and the Rockaways. “Zone A” residents as they’re called by New York City’s evacuation plan faced everything from fallen trees to power downs leaving some in the lowlands, in the words of the New Yorker’s Kate Rouhandeh “hoping for the appearance of an ark.” when Sunday afternoon came and the windows in the Empire State Building weren’t shattered and tour buses hadn’t been blown away in the gale, there was a collective chuckle at the panic in City Hall. Cynicism drove the conversation this week, as if the calculus of destruction has to be an equation rather than an inequality to satisfy all comers.
Mayor Bloomberg and his advisors may have paid too much attention to media outlets looking for a story with an Armageddon-lite patina to it, but there are two facts that people skirt in favor of a better story: the storm was among the ten costliest in the country’s history, and New York got hit hard, just not as hard as it could have. New Yorkers counted up the damage in dollar figures there was a mixture of relief and comedy—hyperbole gave way to sober assessment and a healthy dose of sarcasm. And the Bloomberg administration, guilty of smashing a cockroach with the Encyclopedia Britannica, started to clean up what they thought was going to be the storm of the century, knowing that it did what it could to simply make it the storm of the year.
As Richard Davey Prepares to Take Reign at MassDOT, a Lack of Continuity at Northeast Transportation Authorities
For some reason, no one wants to run transportation agencies in the Northeast. The departure of managers like Jay Walder, former MTA general manager, and the impending vacancy of MassDOT’s Jeffrey Mullan –apparently over a pay squabble with Governor Deval Patrick—shouldn’t come as a surprise: running these systems is a big headache. There’s never enough money to run subways and buses on time, not to mention the harsh winters that accelerate the wear on buses and stress on stations while simultaneously draining the budget. Clearing tons of snow doesn’t come cheap.
Walder’s replacement hasn’t been found yet, but looking for a luminary with a résumé like his —he’s credited with introducing the Oyster card in London and pushed for a tap version of the MetroCard (coming in 2015, hopefully)— is going to be left up to a task-force headed by New York’s Lieutenant Governor Richard Ravitch and is quite the order. Commissioner Mullan’s job description is broader but relatively easier; more highways, less subways. His replacement is Richard Davey, a sort of Jay Walder-lite, and he is leaving his post as the chief of the MBTA for the commissioner’s desk at the Massachusetts Transportation Building, across the Boston Common from the State House.
Davey isn’t taking over until September 1st, and he’s inheriting a mess of disappointment, anxiety, and general disdain for the Bay State’s infrastructure. Commuters from the West hate the tolls, Bostonians don’t like the prospect of bus and subway fare hikes (there hasn’t been one for the past five years), and there are parking lots doubling as thoroughfares in the suburbs to the south and north. Davey’s office is a crosshair of discontent making a typically easy target for public griping –public transportation—even easier to find.
Reform is the status quo now at MassDOT”
The news isn’t all bad for soon-to-be Commissioner Davey: the shape of the Massachusetts economy is sturdier than the country as whole and unemployment numbers are far below the national average at 7.6%. That means that while Bay Staters may dislike any impending cost increases to their daily commute, they are in a better position to afford it. That won’t be reason enough to refrain from protest should any combination of an unholy trinity occur: toll increases, fare hikes, and gas taxes. These strategies are not levers for the sake of pulling: transportation costs for single drivers commuting from the suburbs outweighs costs for those taking public transportation as a proportion of income and the savings incurred by carpooling would make any frugal commuter from Framingham or Swampscott squeeze in the backseat between Ashley from accounting and Jackson from HR.
Davey is also appreciably realistic and honest about the state of transportation infrastructure in Massachusetts (bad), the implications that has for the economy (also, bad), and the brand of strategies that need to be in play in order to shore it up (rough). But Davey has to equivocate like any holding political office–and running buses and trains in a major American city is a unique political act. “Reform is the status quo now at MassDOT,” he told WBUR’s Meghna Chakrabarti in an interview last week, referring to that department’s efforts to streamline operations and find savings before it went looking for new cash. Remaining mum on anything outside of a general fare increase is a shrewd but obvious reference to Governor Patrick’s failed bid to add $0.19 to the state’s paltry $0.235 gasoline excise tax, a move that would have raised $500 million annually and gone a long way towards disarming the debt bomb ticking away at 10 Park Plaza.
Overseeing a public transportation system, as Davey did for a little more than a year, is slightly worse than a thankless job. Subway and bus riders assume –just like pedestrians and motorists—that there infrastructure lacks considerable complexity in providing service at a high level and low cost. Straphangers have taken on an odd brand of roundabout logic regarding transit: the subway has been there because it’s always been there and –this is critical—it will never not be there. Complaints about efficiencies and delays sound more like an amateur chef criticizing the saltiness of a dish at Le Cirque or O Ya; a problem with a blunt, linear solution. The reality is overwhelming and complex – unless, of course, maintaining personalities, budgets, complaints, politics, and equity while simultaneously attempting to keep one’s job sounds like the managerial equivalent of making grilled cheese. Riders often neglect the basic thermodynamic logic behind a public transportation infrastructure: it is a system, and systems are inherently inefficient. Davey will, hopefully, go a long ways towards “squeezing every ounce of savings [he] can out of the organization”, but more importantly (and potentially more hopelessly) he can also educate riders, drivers, and walkers on what exactly goes into his job, a position that has remained a black box for most American cities.
Of course, these are still difficult times to get anything done in Massachusetts transportation when there is still the echo of overdrawn budgets reverberating through the Big Dig tunnels. It is harder still when you consider that the design and implementation dysfunction at that very same project may push the bottom line even higher. Davey discusses that project with the same tenor a cheater might save for a particularly terminal infidelity: “Was it mismanaged? Yes it was. Was it overpriced? Absolutely. But you know what, we have to manage the situation and that’s what we’re going to do.” Admitting institutional mistakes, even if the missteps were on someone else’s watch, is especially satisfying coming from a transportation official where colossal successes and failures are almost always cut from the same cloth, and only the former ever find an owner.
Was it mismanaged? Yes it was. Was it overpriced? Absolutely. But you know what, we have to manage the situation and that’s what we’re going to do.” -Richard Davey
Chakrabarti’s interview with the commissioner-nominee, his first after Gov. Patrick’s announcement, centered on the one question he says will define his tenure: “What kind of transportation system do we want?” The crystalline rhetoric (what other answer could one have besides “good” or “great” or “really great”?) isn’t pointless. If Davey’s position is geared towards educating Massachusetts residents on the subtle and unglamorous issues facing infrastructure then he will have not only taken his predecessor’s path to its logical extension but also conducted an exhibition in bureaucratic pragmatism, a task only slightly more simple than fixing the Green Line.
With the near-5.5 mile stretch of road closed between Park Avenue at 72nd Street and the Brooklyn Bridge closed for New York’s Summer Streets campaign, lower Manhattan took on an unfamiliar soundtrack. You could still hear the cars on Broadway a block over, but the lack of idling engines and tourist buses was unsettling in a good way. After the requisite euphoria subsided it felt like a natural oddity in a city that was doing most things right by way of transportation policy.
Walking up Lafayette Street with the cyclists, pleasantly surprised tourists, and the equally pleasant (but not surprised) natives, it was evident that New York was at the vanguard of turning threatening asphalt into remarkable experiments in public space. A Mayor with considerable disdain for the glacial pace of government and a disproportionate faith in what it can do to transform geography paired with a transportation commissioner who has considerable literacy in realpolitik and a Moses-lite attitude towards urban planning (without the highways) have taken roads and made them sidewalks. The simplicity of the transformation doesn’t negate its innovative definition, and other cities are starting to get the point—slowly.
Portland, Oregon, a sort of practice in progressive urban utopianism, would have legitimate reason to challenge a New York’s forward looking supremacy, but the Rose City does not have the same sort of entrenchment issues that New York, Los Angeles, or Chicago have. The ability for a city like Portland to have significant flexibility in its design separates it from larger cities; the bike paths and robust transit system a beneficent byproduct of that same latitude. More important than that, though, is a more apparent advantage: it’s small. Not all small cities are so easily transmuted though, and Boston in particular has stalled where there are significant opportunities.
Boston blurs the line between petite malleability and historical institutionalism—unfortunately progressive planning initiatives have been limited to fledgling bike path network and a new bike sharing network sponsored by the New England footwear brand New Balance. The city does do large-scale well though; the green hook of the Esplanade running along the Charles River and the engineering alchemy that resulted in miles of highway buried below a park.
Boston comes with its own set of quirks and planning idiosyncrasies, not least of which is its unorthodox—or organic—street map. There are neighborhoods like the North End and sectors of Allston and Brighton where the series of short darts from long thoroughfares represent a Jacobean ideal. In fact the North End, representing one of the only barrios with any community glue is experienced in getting road closure permits for public celebrations like St. Anthony’s feast in August. This transformation of major arterial roadways into a smorgasbord of street vendors and revelers shouldn’t be viewed as an annual departure from traditional ideas about roads because it’s exactly what a city like New York bases its brutally effective piecemeal approach on. You take a street, regardless of the traffic load it endures on a daily basis, and instead of talking to commuters you talk to local business-owners who would see their revenues rise if you inserted a makeshift park next door and a public space instead of a road. Those cosmetic changes are not without ancillary effects: real estate values rise, revenues go up, and traffic fatalities fall precipitously.
Boston has a chance to adopt the incrementalist approach that New York has put in play so effectively and gracefully. A road closure here, a public space there, a bike path yonder, and pretty soon the city has had a facelift and instead of a bisection of city space by cars you have a conflation of public geography. And pretty soon people start coming here for the space, not just the sports.
Radilarious | Vilnius Mayor Must Crush Cars Parked in Bike Lane, Proof that Tanks Make Things Better
A friend of mine shared this video with me and I have to say that while I’m kind of sorry he didn’t crush the Ferrari or the Rolls, doing some work on an old school Benz was still amazing. With all the illegal parking in Boston and New York (I’m sure it happens all over the country) it would be something to see Mayor Menino or Bloomberg rolling over a Prius with a garbage truck or see if the street sweepers have some 4-wheel drive on them.
Seriously though, don’t park in the bike lanes. Lithuania still has some soviet planes leftover and I’m pretty sure Mayor Zuokas wouldn’t mind riding a Panzer through Brooklyn.
Radials Blog will be participating in the live blog for the Ford Foundation’s Just City Event in New York City on Thursday, July 14th. There are going to be 4 forums with some serious luminaries and public figures including:
Alejandro Echeverri – Former Director of Urban Project Medell ín, Colombia (yes that Medellín, Colombia)
Kasim Reed – Honorable Mayor of Atlanta
Bruce Katz – VP of the Brookings Institution
John Hickenlooper – Governor of Colorado
Shaun Donovan – U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development Secretary
Van Jones – Senior Fellow at the Center for American Progress
Deval Patrick (!) – Governor of Massachusetts
Jean Quan – Honorable Mayor of Oakland
Everyone can follow the live updates from Next American City on their live blog and also follow my updates from the official Ford Foundation feed. You can also give them a follow on Twitter @FordJustCity and use the hashtag #justcity to get us trending! Hopefully everyone can follow along.
I am a sucker for good old-fashioned physical comedy from Looney Tunes to Mr. Bean to Jackass (the gross out stuff is another story) and everyone knows that transportation (bicycles, transit, urbanism, all that stuff) is what I’ve chosen to give my (limited) professional skills to. Isn’t it beautiful when those things just match up perfectly? The video below gave me more than just a few good chuckles and, just for good measure, it’s educational in that Johnny Knoxville meets Thomas Paine sort of way. (Via GOOD Magazine and Casey Neistat)
Boston is a small city; you can walk from one official end to the other in under an hour at a brisk pace. Being small has its advantages. Most Bostonians can walk to work when the weather is nice when they have the will and public transportation tends to serve areas of dense employment pretty thoroughly. Lacking megalopolis status also means that Boston has a relative affinity for its bicycle-bound commuters and late this past April, Boston Mayor Thomas Menino made the push for bicycles to become a permanent part of Boston’s infrastructure landscape by initiating a bike-sharing program.
Bike sharing is a fledgling concept in the United States and has the tendency to be scattershot geographically. Chicago, Minneapolis, and Des Moines have programs in the Midwest while shares in Miami, Boston, and Washington, D.C. dot the coastlines. Two cities known for their high share of cycling commuters and typically progressive agendas, New York and San Francisco, are exploring their options. The most robust of these programs, Capital Bikeshare in Washington, has about 1,100 bikes and 114 stations distributed throughout the metro area, about one-fifth the size of Montreal’s Bixi (the largest in North America) and one-twentieth the size of Paris’ Vélib´.
The relative size of the American bike programs to their international counterparts has more to do with the lack of political and economic will to invest in a program that is seen as both detrimental to the car industry —still one of the most powerful lobbies in the US even post-bailout— and impractical due to the still burgeoning suburbs. America is, ostensibly, an urbanized country (82%) which should provide a population that would make wide use of bike shares, but the statistics are misleading as the geographic idiosyncrasies of American metro areas lead to demographics much more wont to use their cars, not their bikes. Sunny and sprawling Phoenix, Arizona spans more than 500 square miles and every resident that resides within that plane is counted as an “urban” dweller.
That being said, bike sharing has been gaining momentum in major metropolitan areas in recent years and months and it’s best exhibited by the Capital Bikeshare (C.B.). While there are cities with higher percentages of cycling commuters —Boulder, Colorado, an idyllic college town has one of the only double-digit modal share among U.S. metro areas— Washington, D.C.’s program is a model for other densely populated cities. Sam Kelly, a Peace Corps volunteer on his way to Namibia in August, took his first ride on C.B. Two weeks ago. “The two stations near to me were pleasant surprises,” he said in an interview last week, “and as I got towards the city center I started seeing more of them. The system seems like it’s working great.”
This is what a bike share program is all about. The demographics that won’t use bicycles for reasons personal and principled are staunch, but there is a large population that doesn’t use them because they lack access and the ancillary products of using bikes —storage, maintenance, practicality— are prohibitive for their lifestyles. The station method of sharing bikes solves those problems simultaneously: ease of storage is a keystone for bike sharing systems and that you never, in practice, own the bike means that taking care of them during inclement weather doesn’t fall on the rider.
New York City has the potential to take those concepts and scale them up to a size unseen on this side of the Atlantic. Mayor Michael Bloomberg, a man the transportation community has a complicated relationship with, has been dangling a transformative bike sharing program in front of alternative transportation advocates since 2009 when New York’s city planners issued an “exhaustive proposal” that included a 10,000 strong fleet of safety-equipped, GPS-ready bikes. Economically, the deal is a victory for innovative financing because it puts the burden of maintenance, damage, and —as this is a city— theft, vandalism, and “artistic destruction.” New Yorkers would buy their memberships on weekly, monthly, or yearly bases and get an unlimited number of free rides that take less than 30 minutes; ride a little longer, pay a little more. New York has decided that an initial burst of capital will serve their purposes the best not least because of their uniqueness among American cities in terms of density and population.
Other cities have taken the incremental approach: Boston won’t crack the four-digit bike mark during its initial rollout but does intent to create a “proxy path” by placing its stations along a designated bike-way. San Francisco will ultimately be a successful program — even with its significant topographical challenges— because of its archetypically progressive population ready to take on whatever environmental mantle they can. And the Capital Bikeshare seems to have a positive trajectory based on its recent expansion and glowing reviews from riders. Bike sharing programs in the United States are young but ready to hit adolescence running not least because we seem to be progressive on transportation projects when presented with detailed proposals. Americans, while taking fierce independence as a sort of sovereign heirloom, are looking for ways to reconnect to their surroundings and have begun to crave community after decades spent in detached homes and detached neighborhoods. It’s amazing how a simple bike program may get us closer to both.
A version of this article first appeared in This Big City on 6/24/2011. This is the author’s personal blog.
When I was a kid Stamford, Connecticut was where the big movie theater and the better malls were (I spent a few years as a middle schooler in Greenwich, CT). In the 10 years since I lived in that part of the world, the “City that Works” has apparently become a bastion of business and media because of favorable tax packages and minor property taxes compared to its behemoth neighbor to the southwest. UBS has its North American headquarters there, along with the largest trader floor in the world, and Bank of Scotland relocated its operations on this side of the Atlantic right next door. Reuters also maintains a large commercial property about an exit down the I-95.
It’s not surprising to see brands like these moving outside New York City proper: taxes are lower, office space is significantly cheaper, and there is still the illusion of proximity to a major hub. One thing that wasn’t considered by the execs at UBS and other companies was that the best and the brightest may not want to move to southern Connecticut when they may have offers in Manhattan and lofts in Brooklyn. The New York Times pointed out that relatively obvious mistake:
Now, though, UBS is having buyer’s remorse. It turns out that a suburban location has become a liability in recruiting the best and brightest young bankers, who want to live inManhattan or Brooklyn, not in Stamford, Conn., which is about 35 miles northeast of Midtown. The firm has also discovered that it would be better to be closer to major clients in the city.
As a result, UBS is seriously considering a reverse migration that would bring its investment banking division and up to 2,000 bankers and traders back to Wall Street and a new skyscraper at the rebuilt World Trade Center, according to real estate executives and city officials.
Why is this significant to a progressive transportation policy? It shows that people still want to live in a place where, if they’re going to be working 80 hours a week, they can blow their paycheck on things that Stamford just can’t offer. Urban areas are still going to be popular with the driven, intelligent, and dynamic and companies cannot move the workforce just because they move the office space. Compact development is actually a driving factor in our high-finance community…as well as every other business community. We get the agglomeration economies integral to getting our lead in the creative economy as well as the spill-over effect when those creative geniuses have a couple beers and start sharing ideas in the local bar.
The cities have tried to move to the suburbs just because it’s cheap but they forgot about everything else that makes a city attractive to the people who work there.
Serving in an executive capacity in the public sector (or private sector, for that matter) is essentially about making choices that a majority will disagree with. Defunding schools for lack of adequate test scores will enrage parents while pleasing fiscal disciplinarians; the previous an unquiet majority and the latter a sometimes obfuscating din. Governor Chris Christie of New Jersey, known for his prodigious build as much as for his significant fiduciary and politicking talents, made what amounts to a typical executive decision: he funded —or rather re-funded as it was on fiscal life-support— one project while defunding another.
The now revived project of Xanadu, an homage to Coleridge’s palace of Kubla Khan or perhaps the more sinister palace of opulence of Welle’s Citizen Kane, is a 2.4 million square foot entertainment complex that includes an indoor ski slope, a skating rink, and an indoor water park. The project that was defunded? The ARC Tunnel, an infrastructure project (map below) that promised to connect New Jersey and Manhattan through a series of capital construction and improvement to stations and tracks throughout both states. The deal that Gov. Christie gave the new developers, who are renaming the complex “American Dream@Meadowlands” which I can only assume is an homage to the conflation of resurgent patriotism and Twitter, a charitable financial package outlined here:
The new developer, the Triple Five group, will invest more than $1 billion in the seven-year-old project. And Gov. Chris Christie has agreed to provide low-interest financing and to forgo most sales tax revenue for a period of time… The administration is offering a financing package of $180 million to $200 million, with the developer able to use most of the sales taxes they collect to repay the loan, rather than contributing the money to the state budget. (NYT, 4/28/11)
The decision is fair enough in the political sense; Gov. Christie decided to offer a private development company a sweetheart deal because it was taking over a project that had been orphaned by its previous developer who had already dumped more than $1 billion into it. Government investing in private industry is as old as organized government in general, but the timing of these two events is leaving many in the transportation world at odds with New Jersey government.
The ARC tunnels finances are significantly more involved than the project-formerly-known-as-Xanadu; projects put it somewhere between $9 billion and $13 billion, a number rivaled only by Boston’s fiscally disastrous but functionally fantastic Big Dig Project. However, because of this project’s transformative potential the US Department of Transportation was offering nearly $4 billion in Federal grants, a record for an infrastructure project. That wasn’t the only funding that Gov. Christie was going to receive from the DOT either:
In addition, [Secretary of Transportation Ray] LaHood essentially offered to write Christie a blank check from his department’s Railroad Rehabilitation and Improvement Financing program for a multi-billion-dollar loan to cover cost overruns and the $775 million Portal Bridge South leading into the new tunnel. (Link to story here)
The remaining $4 to $7 billion is nothing to be scoffed at of course, with Boston on the hook for Big Dig payments for the foreseeable future Gov. Christie was right to look hard at the fiscal realities of the faltering economy and diminishing tax receipts. Projections, even if taken with a grain of salt, throw considerable weight behind building the project however, for reasons ranging from increased home values for corridor residents to the creation of 44,000 new permanent jobs in the region. The ARC tunnel could have reduced commuting time considerably as well, and as Bostonians well know, the travel time between suburban home and downtown Boston pre-and-post-Dig are worth any cost overruns.
It seems almost inappropriate in a time of forced and severe austerity for millions of Americans that Gov. Christie has decided to fund what amounts to a temple to profound consumption and, just a year before, defunded a project that would have improved life and finances for millions. Though if people aren’t happy with the defunding of the ARC tunnel, they can always go skiing in Xanadu.
Co-Op City is a good northern boundary for New York City. It’s the first set of real skyscrapers you see driving on Interstate 95 south from New England; they’re sort of a concrete and steel set of Cairn stones leftover from a different age of architecture and urban planning. Most people see the grouping of “+” sign shaped buildings for what they are: an odd post-apocalyptic moonscape of apartment blocks, the type of place Kurt Russell or Jean Claude Van Dam would be trying to escape from in an early 1990’s action movie. Urban planners and, for completely different reasons, artists usually see Le Corbusier.
The French architect, planner, and artist has been the subject of several excellent full-length biographies and studies so I won’t attempt to add the bibliography here, but there’s a certain merit to explaining his most influential legacy: the Radiant City. Le Corbusier imagined the ideal city as a set of lawn darts. Babel-like towers would house thousands of urban dwellers in one area and they would commute —typically via underground trains and highways— to another set of towers where offices and administrative facilities were housed. Everything else would be a fantastic emerald green.*
Co-Op City, along with Government Housing Projects in Chicago, Baltimore, and other parts of New York, is viewed as a condemnation of the entire theory; proof that bigger isn’t better when it comes to urban planning. Large scale theories are not immune to ironies though, and often the critics of house projects look towards what they know best rather than think about the people who actually live in those buildings. Housing Projects are also known by a general non de guerre: affordable housing. The innocuous phrase is simply a euphemism for housing for the poor.
Poverty, at least in this country, begets poverty (his blog has covered the issue of decentralization before albeit in a roundabout way). Poor people do not emigrate to urban areas for the possibility of a better life as they do in India and China; in the U.S. the poor are often already there, mired in low-wage, low-growth “careers”, disproportionately affected by crime, drugs, and unemployment. The slums of Mumbai and Detroit have very little in common; the tide in India, no matter how uneven, still raises all boats. In the U.S. the tide has receded, leaving Greenwich and Lake Forest afloat.v
The emergence of the Radiant city style housing projects in American is a geographical canard. People living in the projects aren’t poor because they live in the projects; they were poor when they got there. But urban planners usually see it the other way around because that’s the overwhelmingly visual proof and it is distinctly visceral. The truth is, while Le Corbusier’s Radiant cities are not practical in theory or in application they aren’t the why, they’re only the where.
vLe Corbusier’s ideas are flawed to be sure (however the vogue of sustainable living has inadvertently led to the reemergence of vertical living, something Le Corbusier championed) but his ideas were never meant to be applied to anything more than urban theory. He was first an artist, more Gehry than Olmsted, and had never visited American soil before his ideas were adopted sight unseen. He was also a shameless self-promoter and was wont to endorse his ideas where there was very little rationale for application. The Radiant City was geared towards the Parlor crowds of Paris when Le Corbusier was working; terrifying to the cultural bastions of vie Parisen (especially his vision of Paris’s future) and fascinating to the industrial minimalists of the day.
* The concepts runs against the grain of Jane Jacobs, a woman whose life’s work was a crusade against the top-down pursuit of Le Corbusier’s Radiant cities. An untrained urban planner, though as a journalist she was a keener observer than theorist, she considered Boston’s North End and New York’s Greenwich Village —her own home— the organic, and superior, foil to Le Corbusier’s ultimately geometric plan. I mention Jacobs very briefly here because I plan on making her the subject of a much more lengthy study in modern urban theory.
Transformative ideas in transportation are rarities and often lack the earthshattering impacts that advances in other sectors do. Technologies bound forward, of course, the development of the automobile, closely followed by mass produced aircraft changed the architecture of how we travel and the velocity of our lives in general. Those were ideas separate of roads and rails though, feats of human engineering that changed the way we picture infrastructure as an auxiliary effect rather than an instantaneous shift. Open roads existed before Ford; blue sky existed before the Wrights.
Circumstances, both in the economic situation that many metropolises find themselves in as well as the expanding lines of traffic that citizens, have forced ingenuity and crazy, scary, completely unheard of ideas are becoming increasingly attractive. New York City faces a debt burden of billions and traffic, while not mirroring the levels of Moscow and Mexico City, still strangles mobility. It also houses its share of creative, often unreasonable ideas to attack issues with boundless impacts and reason is exactly what a man like Charles Kumanoff lacks.
Kumanoff is a Harvard trained mathematician who turned his skills towards traffic theory once the appeal of applied numbers lost its glint. He never lost his passion for obscure and risky quantitative analysis though, and by peering into the books of every relevant transportation statistic from some of the most complex systems in the world Kumanoff thinks he has a solution for New York’s mounting issues: make public transportation free.
The idea is a feat of molecular gastronomy: deceivingly simple to consume while scientifically confounding. Kumanoff believes the now-defunct congestion pricing plan proposed by Mayor Michael Bloomberg could have changed the landscape of the city significantly if the price points were nearly insurmountable rather than just a nuisance. Charging the majority of drivers who commute downtown every day —typically to more lucrative careers than their subterranean counterparts— $20, $30, $50 would create mass transit utopias with a peppering of the rich who could still afford to pay a premium to drive themselves. Those fees, along with the omnipresence of subsidies, would eliminate the need for transit fares and the masses would rejoice.
Before you start throwing your Metro Cards out the window you should know that Kumanoff’s idea has received little attention outside of pedestrian advocacy groups and dismissive smiles from transit kings like Jay Walder, the CEO of New York’s Metropolitan Transit Authority. Politically, the idea is a non-starter with representatives from wealthy suburbs voicing the concerns of the well heeled as well as Upstate where transformative ideas for the Metropolitans sound the alarm of disproportionate state funding.
We’re not quite there yet. Ideas that challenge convention, and in this case serve as pure iconoclast, are dismissed effectively and sometimes prematurely. There are ideas that are not dispatched cleanly though; a botched administrative surgery perhaps. Kumanoff’s idea, a compact death knell like a particularly shrill whistle blow, has only been muted and ignored rather than cut off. Cities like New York will need fresh looks at their mass transit system as long as billion dollar debts exist and service cuts and fare hikes become more and more unsavory. Kumanoff’s ideas, as wild as they come, may not be the whole answer but he’d say they are certainly part of the equation.
NB: For an excellent piece on Charles Kumanoff, check out this link to Wired magazine.
Most of the time here at Radials we focus on discrete issues facing transportation and urban planning, but from time to time the abstract becomes important and fascinating. I’d like to take some time and deal with the mercurial aspects of mass transit because while riding in a aluminum box with 50 strangers may seem mundane, the implications are forgotten too easily.
Travel trends towards the unconsciousness in a city. A routine is set and we tend to only think dynamically when we are forced to: during a service interruption, construction, a water main break. Even then we are directed towards our destination with detailed placards outlining the easiest route home now that our realities have been altered. We know what side of the track to wait on because we’ve always stood on that side going one way and the other side coming back. It’s less about direction than muscle memory.
That’s interesting but like most routines it becomes a banality after it’s done enough. What line we take home gets ingrained in our brain stems and it becomes as natural as breathing, just slightly more expensive.
There’s been a glut of excellent books on cities and what they do for us lately. Rybczynski Makeshift Metropolis, Glaeser’s The Triumph of the City, and Owen’s Green Metropolis represent a new interest in novel views on where most of us live. Each one takes a different path towards urban analysis —historical, cultural, and environmental, respectively— and while there is mention of transportation theory and planning, predominantly in Glaeser and Owen’s books, the anathematic necessity of mass transit is not given proper due.
What is terribly fascinating about mass transit in the city is that it reflects very little of what a city is. I sense some disagreement in the air; so let me explain what I mean.
Cities —and I understand that more learned urban theorists will disagree fundamentally with me here, but I’m talking about the personal facets of cities— are essentially bound by individuals who consider personal space their biggest luxury. Apartments, offices, taxis, even that self-contained sphere of the treadmill, they all represent an urbanite attempting to escape the constant buzz of anonymity en masse.
The subway and the bus instantly take that fantasy away; we realize that our space is not our space but the conflated discomfort of hundreds of other riders. The city is an anonymous place, to be sure, but it is a series of random individual events rather than one extended journey. And we definitely never stand close enough to a stranger that we can identify a cologne or lack of deodorant.
I was riding the Q with my girlfriend the other day when 3 athletic —we wouldn’t find out how athletic looking until one took his shirt off— young guys came on the train and announced that they were “Black Guys Dancing on a Moving Train”. The talents were on par with any breakdancing group you’d see in Union Square, or more likely Times Square, but the added degree of difficulty was the fact that they were, indeed, on a moving train. Life in a city is like life anywhere else, with an added degree of difficulty. We deal with social nuance on a constantly shifting basis and often one experience after another. Exhaustion is a general outcome for most of us, but at least most of us can go home after a long day and revel in the departure of anonymity.
Some days are harder than others, and sometimes we’re on a moving train.